What to do when politicians use hate speech to gain power

Dr Cherian George, associate professor in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, giving a lecture on ‘Hate Spin’ at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) on 17 January, 2017.

We are probably familiar with the debilitating effects of religious intolerance. But what if religious intolerance itself is used as a tool for political contestation? In other words, we are observing a dangerous new phenomenon that has implications for secular democracies and for freedom of speech. This phenomenon is known as ‘hate spin’ – a term introduced by Dr Cherian George in his latest book, Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and Its Threat to Democracy (The MIT Press, 2015).

What is ‘hate spin’? According to Dr Cherian, it is “manufactured vilification or indignation, used as a political strategy that exploits group identities to mobilize supporters and coerce opponents”. (p. 4) Think of the present controversy surrounding Ahok, manoeuvred by the radical Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), in the lead up to the election for the governor position of Jakarta; or the shenanigans of Malay right wing groups and individuals attempting to silence critics and reformists under the guise of upholding the dignity of Islam and the Malays from so-called threats and attacks by the ‘enemies’. What we are observing is not a natural and spontaneous response to diversity, but “performances orchestrated by political entrepreneurs in their quest for power” who “selectively tease out citizens’ genuine religious emotions and encourage expressions of the popular will, the better to mobilize them toward anti-democratic goals”. (p.1)

Here lies the calculated and deceptive nature of hate spin: it involves the strategic use of offence-giving and offence-taking. In hate spin campaigns, instigators exploit the use of existing “bad laws” such as blasphemy and other insult laws by manufacturing outrage (taking offence). This outrage will then be distributed across a network – often through social media – to further instigate or mobilise the masses, forcing demands or issuing threats (giving offence) while making the instigators immune from existing hate-speech laws because one was ‘offended’ or otherwise, holding public sentiment and the masses’ outrage as ransom.

In this new reality where hate spin is on the rise, a laissez faire approach will not work. Speaking at a lecture organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) yesterday (17 Jan), Dr Cherian emphasised on the need for society to intervene collectively in the marketplace of ideas. Laws, while needed to deal with incitement to harms of discrimination and violence (or what is properly legislated as “hate speech law”), are not always the solution. Hence, it will always be problematic to regulate offence because it is subjective. What is offensive to one person may not be so to another. In addition, there is a need to determine if offence is deliberate or not, which will be tedious to prove before a court of law. On the other hand, incitement has measurable effects, such as outbreak of violence or discrimination. Therefore, in facing hate spin, governments should not accede to voices taking offence but rather, address the real danger that comes from those using offence as a pretext to launch incitements.

Unfortunately, the latter is giving way to the former, hence further eroding civil liberties and undermining democratic space. This space will then be monopolised by radical and extremist voices and groups who have learnt the art of manufacturing offence and anticipated the emasculated will of political leaders in pursuit of self-interest and power. Dr Cherian’s analysis on hate spin is therefore timely and should inform leaders, activists and policymakers who share a commitment for liberal democratic values and a concern over rising populist extremisms along with the heightening of identity politics.

But confronting hate spin may be an uphill task. Too often, it is politicians who utilise hate spin, using religious vigilantes as proxies to propel them into power (or maintain their existing power). And far too often, it will be minorities and vulnerable groups who will bear the brunt of such political plays. (In Hate Spin, Dr Cherian uses Indonesia, India and the United States as case studies.) This is where politics is too precious to be left to politicians. Apart from constitutional safeguards and a good legal system, civil society will need to step up and play its role in keeping hate spin in check by exposing the perpetrators, educating the masses on manipulations of public sentiments and proper responses, and promoting the values needed for democracy to survive: constitutional protection for freedom and equality, and – as Dr Cherian pointed out in his book – an ‘assertive pluralism’ that (1) does not negate people’s religious identities, but insisting that people should not deny the diversity around them, and (2) does not challenge a religion’s legitimate place in the public life of a democracy, or trivialise its believers’ need for respect, yet resists strenuously the position that such legitimacy and respect should be the preserve of just one religion and denied to unpopular beliefs.

A proper response to hate spin, therefore, need not be through having laws that will further restrict freedom – particularly insult laws that will be advantageous to the extremists – but through developing a democratic and egalitarian political culture that comes with vigilance and conviction to trump over hate propagandists.



is an interfaith activist, and has delivered talks and conducted various interfaith events in Singapore and Indonesia.

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